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The money allocated to Montana’s new charter schools

Just how much did the 2023 Legislature set aside for the state’s first wave of new charter schools?
Posted at 8:35 AM, Mar 18, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-18 11:44:00-04

Over the past year, we’ve fielded many reader emails about charter schools in Montana. The curiosity is understandable — one of the two charter school laws passed by the 2023 Legislature is currently tied up in district court, and the other has already generated 19 public charters in nearly a dozen communities. But one recent email posed a question we hadn’t yet covered: exactly how much state funding did the Montana Legislature direct toward these new educational institutions?

The short answer is about $1.2 million. Both House Bill 549, which established public charter schools, and House Bill 562, which set up a separate system of “community choice” schools, called for any new charters to receive state funding through what’s known as K-12 BASE Aid, reports the Montana Free Press. That’s the same formula the Legislature uses to fund public schools. In setting Montana’s two-year budget last spring, lawmakers set aside about $817,000 in extra BASE aid for public charter schools and another $425,000 for community choice schools.

Subsequent events have made the story a bit more complicated. The Legislature’s appropriation for HB 562 community choice schools is, for the time being, moot after a state district court judge in Helena barred state officials from approving any applications under that law until a legal challenge against it is resolved.

As for HB 549, lawmakers underestimated the immediate appeal the law would have for public school districts throughout the state. The Legislature’s fiscal projections were based on the assumption that five charters would start up during the current budget cycle. Instead, the Montana Board of Public Education wound up fielding 26 public charter applications in the first wave, and has approved contracts for 19 of the proposed schools to start operating within the next year and a half. The board and the Office of Public Instruction are still sorting out financial details, but the new charters will be receiving at least a portion of their K-12 BASE Aid this fall.

“The program was more popular than we had anticipated,” Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, told MTFP this week. “But funding will be made available in order to support those programs that were approved by the Board of Public Education.”

Bedey, who chairs the Legislature’s Education Interim Budget Committee, also noted that additional funding for the public charters, if necessary, may be allocated through a supplemental appropriation in the early days of the 2025 Legislature.

This story is adapted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday. It was originally published under the title “Glad You Asked.”